Ireland RWC 2015 Report Card: Part 5, Centres

Henshaw’s performances in the 2015 Six Nations were extremely impressive for a young player making his first appearance in the tournamenthave made him a shoo-in Making breaks and beating defenders is tough in the No12 jersey – there's no room. In those regards, Henshaw had a cracking Six Nations, easily outperforming any of his northern hemisphere contemporaries. Over the course of the 5 games in the Six Nations, Henshaw was credited by ESPN with 4 clean breaks [2 vs Scotland, 1 vs England, 1 vs Italy] and 16 defenders beaten [2 vs Scotland, 3 vs Wales, 6 vs England, 2 vs France and 3 vs Italy]. That gives an average of 0.8 CB/game and 3.2 DB/game. Jamie Roberts started all five games for Wales and is credited with 1 clean break and 6 defenders beaten [average: 0.2CB/game and 1.2DB/game]; Luther Burrell started all five for England and is credited with 2 clean breaks and 3 defenders beaten [0.4 CB/game and 0.6 DB/game -and those figures point towards why he didn't make the English RWC squad]. No other No12 started more than three matches in the championship. Masi [Italy] played in three games and is credited with 2 clean breaks and 4 defenders beaten [0.7 CB/game and 1.3 DB/game]; Fofana [France] played in three and is credited with 2 clean breaks and 6 defenders beaten [0.7 CB/game and 2 DB/game]; and Dunbar [Scotland] started 3 and is credited with 2 clean breaks and 2 defenders beaten [0.7 CB/game and 0.7 DB/game]. Given that he massively outperformed both in totals and averages all his contemporaries in those key attacking categories, that he was first rate defensively and that we won the Six Nations, I thought he was an unqualified success. By some distance the best No12 in the tournament.

Henshaw’s performances in the 2015 Six Nations were extremely impressive for a young player making his first appearance in the tournament.
Making breaks and beating defenders is tough in the No12 jersey – there’s no room. In those regards, Henshaw had a cracking Six Nations, easily outperforming any of his northern hemisphere contemporaries.
Over the course of the 5 games in the Six Nations, Henshaw was credited by ESPN with 4 clean breaks [2 vs Scotland, 1 vs England, 1 vs Italy] and 16 defenders beaten [2 vs Scotland, 3 vs Wales, 6 vs England, 2 vs France and 3 vs Italy]. That gives an average of 0.8 CB/game and 3.2 DB/game.
Jamie Roberts started all five games for Wales and is credited with 1 clean break and 6 defenders beaten [average: 0.2CB/game and 1.2DB/game]; Luther Burrell started all five for England and is credited with 2 clean breaks and 3 defenders beaten [0.4 CB/game and 0.6 DB/game -and those figures point towards why he didn’t make the English RWC squad]. No other No12 started more than three matches in the championship.
Masi [Italy] played in three games and is credited with 2 clean breaks and 4 defenders beaten [0.7 CB/game and 1.3 DB/game]; Fofana [France] played in three and is credited with 2 clean breaks and 6 defenders beaten [0.7 CB/game and 2 DB/game]; and Dunbar [Scotland] started 3 and is credited with 2 clean breaks and 2 defenders beaten [0.7 CB/game and 0.7 DB/game].
He massively outperformed both in totals and averages all his contemporaries in those key attacking categories, and was first rate defensively in a successful Six Nations defence. He was an unqualified success with an extremely strong claim to have been the best No12 in the tournament.

Robbie Henshaw: The Mole’s Irish player of the tournament and a serious international at this stage of his career. Henshaw rarely looks flustered and relishes physicality. For years, Connacht had no representation on the Irish team but investment in the traditional Cinderella province of Irish rugby has always made sense as it provides another opportunity for professional players to compete.

I think Henshaw could have fitted into any other team in the tournament. Nonu was brilliant for NZ throughout the knock outs, particularly his hunger to get outside by using footwork and a change in pace  to hold defenses, something he has refined towards the end of his career. Henshaw would have moved to second centre if lining up for Australia but I believe would have been able to offer the same threat as Kuridrani one out.

Would Henshaw have had the same opportunities if he’d come up through another province? Very doubtful; Eric Elwood was prepared to play him from the start of games pretty much straight out of school while in other provinces contemporaries have to wait until their u20s careers are done to even get a sniff. Much of this is due to Henshaw’s temperament and physicality but the balancing act between national and provincial interests never seems more stark after a World Cup tournament. Personally, I’m with team Ireland.

Jared Payne: The much maligned Jared Payne, inheritor of O’Driscoll’s jersey, has always seemed to cop a disproportionate amount of flak from voluble sources in the (non-Ulster) media. Payne is a full back by preference (Twitter handle @thepain15) who has become a centre by necessity. It’s the top-down hierarchy of decision-making that the Irish system provides for, in sharp contrast to the metastasizing influence of the Premiership clubs in English rugby. Schmidt wanted Payne to play at No13, so Ulster played him there, displacing an established outside centre. Lancaster wanted Sam Burgess to play at No12, so Bath picked him in the backrow.

With good awareness, decent handling skills and solid basics, Payne stands out as a Kiwi in the Irish backline. Watching the All Blacks in the knock-out stages, The Mole was struck by the intelligence and accuracy of their play, moreso than their physical prowess or aggression. There’s so much practical rugby knowledge in New Zealand through all strata of age groups and society that it’s hard to envision a coach who isn’t at least competent being given a job at any level – from minis to Third Bs.

For example, there are few teams in the rugby world who could afford to overlook a talent like the former IRB U19 World Player of the Year Robbie Fruean, but the knock on the now 27 year old has been that for all his physical gifts, he isn’t a smart player on the pitch. It’s a deal-breaker in the Kiwi game.

Payne is not blessed with twinkling toes and outrageous acceleration but he is smart, and has become a solid, physical footballer with an awareness of his position’s requirements. What should be of concern to Irish rugby is that there were very few alternatives to Payne with these attributes.

Of further concern is the apparent lack of consistent thinking with regards to continuity and progression in the No13 jersey. All three of the provinces fielded non-Irish qualified outside centres in the weekend immediately following the quarter final round: Ben Te’o at Leinster, Bundee Aki for Connacht and Francis Saili for Munster. Of these players, only Aki is a designated ‘project player’ whose contract runs all the way through to the date of his naturalisation under current World Rugby regulations. Saili is the latest in a long list of test-capped foreigners to pitch up in the Munster three-quarter line, and Ben Te’o remains something of an offloading enigma, a holdover from the Matt O’Connor era that Leinster fans are doing their best to forget. If there had been a few more options then Payne could have competed with Rob Kearney for the full back jersey.

We wrote before the World Cup that “Our real issue as I see it isn’t if our scrum halves get injured but if our centres do. That was what came to pass and I’m puzzled when I see occasional mention of the players missing for the Argentinian match without Payne being listed. I think Ireland may have missed Payne even more than Sexton in that game, which is quite a feat.

Keith Earls celebrates breaking Brian O'Driscoll's Irish World Cup try-scoring record against Italy.

Keith Earls celebrates breaking Brian O’Driscoll’s Irish World Cup try-scoring record against Italy.

Keith Earls: Earls’ performances against Canada and Romania early in the competition probably made him the first-choice wing in the squad; the latter performance was really everything you’d ask for from a test wing, albeit against a poor side. 

So why have we listed here him as a centre, rather than a winger? Simply because he started the last three matches of the tournament at No13. While he was likely Schmidt’s first-choice left wing, he was also the coach’s second-choice No13 going into the World Cup, primarily on the back of his impressive performance against a Welsh shadow selection in the first game of the warm-up series.

The maxim that applied to Jordi Murphy also applies to Earls: versatility is a blessing until it is a curse. The difference is that Murphy is 24 and Earls is 28. The ability to play different positions as a talented youngster will get you on tour and match day squads. There comes a certain point when a player owes it to himself to choose his best position and stick with it.

Under Foley, Earls started seven games for Munster in the No14 jersey last season and five in the No13 jersey; the previous year he had fourteen starts in the No14 jersey and three in the No13 jersey under Rob Penney. In 2012-13, the New Zealander predominantly saw him as a No13, starting him in the position in eight out of nine games. That seems like a bit of a jumble of intent, so what’s the narrative?

In Penney’s first year in charge, the coach selected him as a centre, switching him to the wing for the defining game of Munster’s season, the Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont; in his second year at the helm, the Kiwi saw him almost exclusively as a right winger, selecting him in the centre only in Pro12 games against the Dragons [home and away] and Glasgow. Foley switched him in and out of the centre and the wing last season, and has started this season with him in the No13 jersey.

Do I think Keith Earls is an international centre? He’s been picked there by two coaches for test matches, so he obviously is an international centre. Is it his best position? No, I don’t think so. Is he a particularly good No13 when rated against his international peers? I don’t think so either. 

Earls’ best position is wing and he did himself no favours earlier in his career by publicly saying that he “hated” playing there. Should he have rejected Schmidt’s selection and demanded that he be considered only on the wing? No, that’s pretty dramatic and not what you want from any player in your squad during a tournament. However, if I was advising Earls at this stage of his career, I’d recommend him to concentrate exclusively as a winger and to develop his support game so that he could use his speed and balance to go through gaps by running short lines off the shoulder of the player with the ball. 

Darren Cave: I feel confident saying that Joe Schmidt planned to pick Gordon D’Arcy in his squad until he realised just how slow D’Arcy had become in the last nine months. At that stage it became pick’em between Reid and Cave and there are just too many inconsistencies in Reid’s game at provincial level to select him for a World Cup squad.

Like Reid, Cave is a “finesse” player. He has good hands and awareness but he just isn’t physical enough for the demands of test rugby. That’s not unusual, it’s common among many players at many levels as they attempt to make the step up a grade be it from 20s to senior rugby, 2s to 1s or club to provincial.

One of the Moles remembers seeing Zinzan Brooke in a pub in Dublin over an international weekend. Everyone who remembers Brooke playing recalls the wide range of skills but Zinny wasn’t a show pony, he could play hard. What made the biggest impression was just how much bigger Brooke was compared to everyone else in the pub (including a notably gigantic head.)

Darragh  O’Se wrote about making step up from club to county during the summer time “Club football gives you a false impression of how good you are. That lovely little dummy solo that bought you a yard of space in a club game might work the first time you try it in county training but it won’t the second time. The second time, the defender will strip the ball and laugh at you while he’s doing it.

The difference is the speed. Not so much speed on your feet or with your hands. More speed in your head. At club level, the drills are designed to improve your skill with the ball.

At county level, even if the drill is exactly the same, the objective is different. It’s taken as given that you have the skill – the purpose of the drill is to do the skill at pace.”

His selection in the squad but non-selection for the Argentinian game highlighted for me Schmidt’s pragmatism (selectorial bias – dilute to taste) and the elevated requirements of top class international competition.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King 

The Payne/Earls/Cave selection debate exercised a small corner of the rugby world after the first few rounds of the tournament. In discussion with Matt Williams and Eoin McDevitt on Second Captains, Shane Horgan described Earls as an “instinctive” player. That’s one of those descriptions that tells you as much about what a player isn’t as tells you what he is and was diplomatically selected by a former test centre who made a decision to concentrate on playing winger.

I’m familiar with the provincial mindset of a sizable proportion of the Irish rugby population. The lines are drawn fairly clear: if you’re from Munster then the tries against Argentina were mainly the fault of the Kearney family, if you’re from Leinster then it was Earls’ fault and if you’re from Ulster then it’s a disgrace that Cave was overlooked. If you’re from Connacht you’re justifiably proud of Robbie Henshaw.

None of this helps with the fact that Ireland’s defending against Argentina was dreadful. The line speed was pedestrian, the understanding of what they were trying to do was missing, the communication seemed non-existent and the intensity was way below the level required.

Robbie Henshaw spoke about playing second centre against Australia last year and the importance of awareness and communication “I don’t think I made too many errors, I stayed connected with Gordon D’Arcy and my wingers, we shut them down pretty well. They never really looked like breaking us. We scrambled well in defence and the work Les Kiss did for us during the week worked out.” After the following game against South Africa, O’Driscoll was effusive about Henshaw’s physicality “He has an appetite for hurting people, he has an appetite to go after a hit.

A number of knowledgeable rugby commentators used to praise Brian O’Driscoll as ‘the best defensive centre in the world’ in the second half of his career. They weren’t just saying something nice because he’d lost a yard of pace. It’s a tough position in which to defend and he made it look like it wasn’t. O’Driscoll himself even went out of his way to discuss the shortcomings of Ireland’s defence which is unusual for someone whose main aim in the media is to avoid any controversy or pointed criticism. 

I’ve never seen Ireland defend as narrow as they did and the disappointing thing for me is that you could see it early on. We never actually fixed it throughout the whole game. You’ve guys in there that don’t know each other and weren’t big communicators. For me, the two biggest losses were Jonny at 10 and possibly from a defensive point of view, Jared at 13, just being able to pull guys out to the width. I’m not shooting down (Keith) Earlsy. He’s played a lot out on the wing so he’s not as up to speed as some people are at 13.

There was a lot of talk about how Ireland needed to work on developing skills and take more risks after the latest defeat and a lot of that is true and accurate. What wasn’t mentioned is that it was our brutal defence and conceding 43 points that saw us out of the tournament. What needs to be improved most of all is our intelligence and awareness. With a small population, Ireland will always have a smaller pool of athletes to choose from than France or England who could each field two teams at most times capable of competing at test level. We need to become a smarter, more intelligent footballing nation and grousing about provincial bias won’t make that happen. Rivalry is necessary; rivalry to the point of ignorance is just ignorant.

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13 thoughts on “Ireland RWC 2015 Report Card: Part 5, Centres

  1. I’ve always been a fan of Earlsy who can bring something different to the team but he showcased the best and worst of his game during the tournament. Lapses in concentration, a lack of power in contact and the knock-on against France when put into a very high percentage finishing position by Bowe (if you want to hear what 50,000 groans sounds like replay the match again). The man does have a nose for the tryline and can beat a defender one on one but his talents are best suited to the wing.

    Given the paucity of our options at centre as outlined above, is it time to blood McCloskey at 12 and move Henshaw out to 13? It looks to me like the phantom Payne injury is far more serious than previously thought and he may well not make the 6 N at this stage. Henshaw strikes me as a guy who is equally adept at both centre roles and he may even get a chance to expand his attacking game a bit more. McCloskey is a big guy who gets over the gainline but he also seems to have a bit more nous than your standard bosh and bosh again 12. It’s a very big centre partnership but not without guile and some more subtle touches……

  2. Going forward i would like to see Henshaw play 13. At 22 he already looks a clever defender, is vocal and could provide solidity in a position that is hard to defend for the next decade. Also he rarely seems to get injured, probably because of his size-he is naturally a big athlete and doesn’t look like it has been artificially added in a gym.
    Hard to know how good he can be there going forward but the stats suggest if he can be a man beater in the confines of the 12 channel he should be able to do it out wide.

  3. So what you’re saying is, at provincial level, we need to build a bigger mini maul?

    I thought before the game missing Payne would be a blow, but not as big as it turned out. He is, as you point out, a very smart player and his experience as a 15 makes him an excellent defender.

    Should we adopt a more Australian approach to young players, chuck them in and see if they sink or swim? At both test and provicial levels. There’s an inherent conservatism and circular attitude to our selection policy that means you need experience to be picked but rarely get the opportunity to be picked because you haven’t got the experience. Neither the B&I cup nor the AIL (or whatever they call it now) seem to count too much for even the Pro12. Leinster are still picking redzer and boss for example despite McGrath seemingly playing well at both those levels. We know what both the former bring to the table at this stage, surely younger players need to play and make mistakes at a higher level to see if they can adapt and overcome. And if they can’t, well that’s that and onto the next one.

  4. I’ve no idea where you got the idea that Cave isn’t physical enough for international rugby. He’s a big, strong fecker who tackles like train. Maybe you read it somewhere. Guess who leads the defensive line for Ulster? Why one Darren Cave of course and Ulster have a pretty good defensive record each season. It’s just a bit of lazy thinking and a lack of observation.

    There are criticisms one can make of Cave other than this but to call this against him – which is just unquantifiable nonsense frankly – and ignore the reality of the lack of it in Earls as a 13 is even lazier. earls is our best winger but he is a weak 13. How many times do we need to see him get flattened? He got blitzed into the middle of next week by Italy’s 9 ffs and you criticise Cave for being too weak.

    You give a lot of ‘interesting’ stats to show us how good Henshaw is. Here are some of the vague ‘stats’ that show Cave’s frailties.
    He makes too many tackles.
    He doesn’t get set on his arse by dwarf 9s.
    He off loads too much and puts players into try scoring positions.
    He makes too many line breaks where he gets his hands free to pass out of the tackle when he should according to Schmidtball, go to ground and set up a ruck.
    He also scores far too many tries for a centre.
    You see.. You didn’t think it through. Instead of pointing out that his biggest, biggest failing is that he actually plays rugby at 13 the way it is meant to be played. He may not be good enough for Ireland but it ain’t because he’s a fairy.

    As things turned out, I’m actually delighted for Cave that he didn’t get selected against Argentina or he would I’m sure have become the immediate scapegoat for the entire loss. Madigan was mince. Murphy went awol. Daverage became a revolving door. Earls became a door mat – again – but ‘Hey!’ they’re really just great and it wasn’t their fault.

    Going back to that game against Wales 3Bs when @earlsy’ got the MOTM, he got it on the back of a Trimble tackle and the play of Cave playing out of position at 12.

    Hopefully by this time next year we’ll see Henshaw battering away at 13. He is a great athlete. . There might even be a clip or two of him by then being o.k. in that position but feck me pink, he was selected there before he had done anything of note. I mean the press say he is good there so it must be true.

    McCloskey has some good attributes as a potential partner for him or Payne for Ireland but not yet. Ireland will no doubt revert to type, Having found a partnership that sort of works I have no doubt that we’ll go back to the days where it is impossible to be dropped. McCloskey will probably get a Wolfhounds game when he’s 28 or so. Then there is Olding to return – hopefully. T’eo could become available but I hear he may want to return to League. Luke Marshall might get over his bad luck with injuries. Sam Arnold is a decent kid and then there is of course ‘Jesus’ Ringrose, Bundi Aki and who knows, maybe the press will select another star for us.

  5. “I’m familiar with the provincial mindset of a sizable proportion of the Irish rugby population. The lines are drawn fairly clear: if you’re from Munster then the tries against Argentina were mainly the fault of the Kearney family, if you’re from Leinster then it was Earls’ fault and if you’re from Ulster then it’s a disgrace that Cave was overlooked. If you’re from Connacht you’re justifiably proud of Robbie Henshaw.”

    Take a bow Sir- brilliant paragraph

  6. Interesting as always. Its a little odd that you highlight Payne’s makeshift 13ness, but don’t mention that Henshaw started as a 15 before becoming a 13 and was pushed to 12 by the coach? Is it an age thing – Henshaw at 22 arguably hasn’t found his best position, whereas Payne is an established 15? Personally I prefer Henshaw at 13 which suits Connacht more I think, but you can’t argue with the physicality he brings at 12 either. As much as we shouldn’t talk about replacing BOD, when you look at the skillset and qualities Henshaw represents, he does seem to have the potential to be world class. I just hope he’s not leaving. 😦

    Also, even as a Connacht fan, and as much as I adore Henshaw, I can’t make a claim for him being a better 12 than Nonu this tournament! But hopefully he can learn from the developments that Nonu has shown in the past 4-6 years. I think that one of the obvious differences between NZ and other nations is that NZ players never stop developing and don’t allow weaknesses or crutches in their play to persist. Madigan for instance would never have been capped for NZ at his current skillset.

  7. Henshaw is looking good for 12 or 13. And I’m hoping that versatility will be a strength in his case! That time spent with o’driscoll has really been of benefit, he is in superb condition and he (what I think is helping his lack of injury record) has great footwork (and gets low) around contact. That step around basteareud is a career highlight and he has a few now – the pass v Toulouse, the catch v England and the repeated quality of his tackling among other things. That’s a good variety and it’s fair to say we have a reasonable player on our hands there. It sounds like you are subtlety advocating a move for him mole. Apologies if I’m misreading you. His recent interviews suggested he is contemplating that too. I understand that, but I thought O’Gara’s views on his potential move are worth listening to. Is team Ireland better served with him being at Munster or Leinster, or by him being the local product who Connacht build everything around? Would moving improve him? Can Connacht give him enough in order to stay? Would being the ‘franchise player’ be too unfair a burden on him? And of course-what does he want for himself?

    The Argentina thing… No argument about defence from me. You’d need a fair amount of successful offloads to cover 40+points. For me, people blaming individuals are missing the point. It has to be collective responsibility:

    Not remedying the trends against Italy where they made hay out wide-my memory tells me especially against bowe – well that has to be something the coaches are regretting. Our coaches have been excellent and I no doubt would say they had a reason for choosing this type of defence but it wasn’t a success and Argentina were well ready for it.

    Our breakdown and contact work being well below the intensity required early on, which left us shorter than we’d have liked out wide, well the pack will be hurting about that.

    Not sorting these things out when we were under the posts – the leadership group will be beating themselves up. Could the haemorrhaging of points have been fixed there and then, as o’driscoll has suggested? To be fair most of that group were in the stand.

    In the wide channels – well, trying to improve that I’d argue:

    1. We should take a leaf out of o’driscoll’s book (not the actual book-it’s disappointing 🙂 and be more animated in organising who has who. In a stadium of potentially 90000 drunkish people, it’s maybe not enough to just talk, or to just assume that your team mates can see that you’ve got someone covered. O’driscoll used to point and make it crystal clear who he had and I think earls will regret not doing just that. But it doesn’t matter if the inside guy wears 13 or 3, as a partnership this has to be better. If we are totally reliant on the 13 to do it, then to state the obvious – we are a bit fooked if your 13 is resourcing a ruck (as earls was in the second try), or if they attack the blindside of a ruck and your 13 is positioned (where he should be) on the open side, connected to his inside centre and wing (as earls was for the fourth try).

    2. We’ve got to be much more reluctant to bite in unless absolutely necessary. Sometimes it’s worked for us, I’m thinking dave Kearney saving a try and indeed the 6 nations title against France, but that was as the last man and on a number of occasions we’ve just not trusted the inside defender enough. I’m remembering Sean O’brien talking about this after the New Zealand game as the most obvious, but it’s not on it’s own. For me, in any defensive system in any sport, the first rule is cover your own man (or your own space in zonal type systems) and then as a second rule it’s help out your teammate where you can, as much a you can. Again to state the boringly obvious. If someone makes a missed tackle or messes up, well that’s an individual error – you work on our skills to minimise it, but missed tackles will be hard to legislate for in any system. You’ve got to trust the man or woman inside you to do their thing.

    That’s about it for me. Thanks for this excellent series mole. It’s (slowly) helping me over the disappointment.

  8. Pingback: A Special Day – Ruck, Tackle and Maul

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